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Updated version of Avaz app has plenty to offer, enables access to wider audience

In our weekly feature #TechThursdays, we bring you a report on the Avaz app that has empowered children and adults with speech disabilities around the world. The updated 4.4 version, launched recently, has even more user friendly features. Read on to find out.

From saying his prayers to choosing the fruit he wants to eat, 12-year-old Sarravjeet Prasad communicates his daily needs using the Avaz App. Initially his mother Deepa used it sparingly as she was unfamiliar with it. That changed when she realized what a lifeline it is.

"I have been using Avaz regularly for three years now. My son uses it to tell me what clothes he wants to wear, including the colour and even to express the specific kind of pain he is feeling", she says.

These are abilities many people take for granted but for Sarrvajeet, who has ADHD with features of autism and is minimally verbal, expressing his needs and feelings is a struggle. One that many non-verbal individuals, especially those with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, etc. face.

It is here that Avaz, an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app, plays an invaluable role.

Children with speech difficulties are not able to make themselves heard. This prevents them from expressing their needs, feelings and ideas. Their preferences are often taken for granted and intentions are second-guessed. This leads to poor self-esteem. Left unaddressed, this turns into a sense of frustration that may develop into deep-rooted behaviour issues. Avaz supports such children and adults by offering them an alternative method to communicate. - Lalitha Nagarajan, Head of Support & Community Relations, Avaz app

Avaz is the creation of Invention Labs, a start-up founded by the alumni of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M). It was developed in partnership with Chennai NGO Vidya Sagar with the idea of using technology to help children with disabilities. The first prototype, launched in 2009, was a custom-built device that could be mounted on a wheelchair.

Over the years, the app has evolved with developers working in close collaboration with schools, speech therapists, parents and experts. The current version, 4.4, offers parents a chance to use Avaz from their existing Android smart phones and also allows messaging to WhatsApp from Avaz. This feature has been widely appreciated as this requires no investment in additional hardware, like tabs or iPads.

What Avaz has successfully done is empower countless children with speech disabilities by enabling them to participate in conversations, in classrooms and express their needs and opinions. This has opened doors to multiple avenues in education and employment, that were earlier closed.

Affordable, Appropriate

"The only international solutions available then, were prohibitively priced and not culturally appropriate for India", says Nagarajan. "Not only is Avaz more affordable than the alternatives built in the West, it also has a rich, in-built vocabulary that is culturally relevant. International solutions had vocabulary and voices that were alien to the Indian context. Avaz has Indian-accented voices and has pictures of Indian foods, festivals, clothes etc., in addition to in-built picture vocabulary in six Indian languages".

Even better, Avaz can be customized to suit every user's language, culture, and specific needs. This means that Deepa not only teaches Sarvajeet academics but also Carnatic music using Avaz. "In the updated 4.4 version, he is able to communicate with his grandmother on her birthday so it has opened up a new avenue for him", she says.

Grieva Shah, Founder, Pearl Special Needs Foundation has been using Avaz since 2012 at her school in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. She uses the app among children from four to 18 years with disabilities like autism, speech and language impairments, secondary language issues and learning disorders.

"Many aspects of language are abstract and cannot be explained by words, like map, nap etc.", says Shah. "These are hard for children with such disabilities to comprehend but Avaz has made it easier because it has visual and audio inputs. We use it on a one to one basis, and this has a made a great difference with recall and registration levels, voice association and comprehension".

Shah likes the updated version for the Indianized context. 'The latest version has food and festivals based in the Indian context and that works amazingly. Things like recalling the prime minister's name or an actor's name is easier".

Avaz is being used in 15 countries with over 50,000 users as of date. It has been adopted in countries like the United States, Denmark, France, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and Sri Lanka.

In 2016, the government of Tamil Nadu launched a scheme under which Avaz is being provided to state-supported schools and early-intervention centres across all districts, making it the first successful large-scale implementation of a communication system anywhere in Asia. Talks are on to replicate this with other state governments and countries as well.

Other stories in the #TechThursdays series:

Enable Makeathon brings together key players to power innovative assistive tech solutions

BleeTV offers accessible, stimulating content, on demand, in Indian sign language

Handicare enables people with lower limb disability to move around in a safe, hygienic manner

Learning becomes richer, deeper for children with vision impairments with Tactopus

Tobii Dynavox eye tracker is opening new world to little Ganga & others like her

TouchVision brings pictures alive for people with visual disabilities

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